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Kill Your Darlings: 3 Techniques that’ll Help You Honestly Evaluate Your Own Work

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One of the biggest hurdles we must overcome when we begin any creative endeavor is getting past the honeymoon phase of, “look at this awesome thing I created” and on to the more realistic and productive phase of, “just because I created it doesn’t make it awesome.”

Given that we spend most of our lives coming up with excuses to avoid creative endeavors, mostly for fear of judgement or failure, it’s understandable that this transition is hard to make. Once we’ve finally mustered up the strength to actually get out there and make something the last thing we want to do is beat it up by altering, editing or even destroying it.

Unfortunately, everything we create isn’t beautiful, and thus, this is a very important part of the process. Writers have even coined a term for it and affectionately refer to it as, ‘killing your darlings’ (or if you’re like me you constantly misquote it as ‘killing your babies’ and horrify everyone in the vicinity).

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Why is this so important? Simply put, becoming too attached to your work stifles improvement and can be incredibly crippling. And this is just as true for photography as it is for writing or, in truth, all forms of art.

In order to produce quality work you have to be able to effectively critique your own creations. You should be just as harsh on yourself as you were on the ‘undeserving photographer’ with his own show, or that ‘hack’ that got the photo feature in your favorite magazine or newspaper.

So, just how do we become this cutthroat when it’s our own darlings (or babies) on the line?

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1) Take Time Away: Go shoot something else and come back later

Perhaps the most common way is to simply take some time away. Sometimes we get so steeped in our own heads we can’t see the forest for the trees. When this happens, we need to take a deep creative breath and break away from our work for a bit.

Step away from your photos for a while and go shoot something else. It’s harder to be objective about a fresh photo because you’re still in love with the idea of it. Go fall in love with another photo then come back and see how strong your feelings are for your previous creation.

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This works, and when I say that I’m speaking from experience. This solution is one I employ quite often because I’ve developed a bad habit of finding small elements in every photo that I fall in love with.

This makes it incredibly hard to choose favorites and cut the fat, and while this habit will likely make me a good father some day it does nothing for my photo editing skills.

As a result, I’ve resorted to stepping away from my work for a few days (and sometimes even a week or two if the project permits) on several occasions, and it has always helped me better evaluate the quality and merit of my work.

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2) Ask a friend’s opinion (but don’t tell them it’s your photo)

Of course we don’t all have the convenience of time. So, if taking a break isn’t a viable option, I recommend another common solution: ask a friend or associate to look at your darlings.

There is a caveat here though. For better or worse, our friends and family aren’t often willing to dish out the brutal honesty we so desperately need. You were just able to push aside the excuses and finally create something, the last thing they want to do is tear you down (at least with most friends and family).

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What they don’t understand is that, despite their heart being in the right place, lying to spare our feelings does you a great disservice. This is why I recommend doing a bit of lying yourself!

Tell them you’re looking at a friend’s photo or an associate asked you for notes, anything to make them think it isn’t yours. They’ll be far more comfortable being brutally honest with you if they don’t think it’s your work they’re criticizing.

Plus, you get the bonus of seeing their embarrassed face when you confess your secret… and that’s priceless.

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3) Use the ‘Soft-Delete’ to see if you REALLY like the shot

Finally, the last tactic I find very useful is the ‘soft-delete.’ If you have a photo you’re on the fence about, go ahead and save the RAW image or source file, but delete it from the batch of photos you’re editing or move it out of the main folder… then gauge your reaction to ‘deleting’ it.

You may freak out, immediately change your mind, and want it back in the collection. Or you may longingly remember it in a few days and choose to add it back. More likely, if you’re like me anyways, you will probably NEVER think about that photo again. Regardless of the outcome, you have an answer you can trust.

Usually, ‘on the fence’ is synonymous with ‘shouldn’t make the cut,’ but that pesky voice in the back of your head keeps telling you that it’s special because YOU created it. It’s not… and this is one of the most effective ways to sidestep that voice and be more honest with yourself.

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Getting used to ‘killing your darlings’ is one of the best ways to improve your photography skills. It’ll prevent you from showcasing lackluster pieces of work and will ensure you always put your best foot forward. So give these methods a shot and feel free to drop further suggestions in the comments!


Image credits: Darkroom by Stephen Cummings, Writer’s Block II by Drew Coffman, After the Edit by Laura Ritchie, Lightroom Develop Settings by Robert S. Donovan, Portfolio Review by VFS Digital Design, 22.06.09 lettura portfolio backstage by Carla Cinelli, CompFrontSmall by Pyroclastichawk, Mckeyhan_Photographer_Portfolio2009 by Mckeyhan Mancini.


 
  • OtterMatt

    This is actually something I’ve not had a problem with, mostly because I’m very used to receiving criticism due to a writing background. I do think it kinda helps, though, that I often don’t get around to pulling my images off of the camera the same day as I take them. The time between site and edit really helps my perspective, and I’ve wiped out entire days of shooting because it really was that bad.

  • Mojo

    Agreed.

  • http://www.mbrown.ca Mark Brown

    Fantastic article! I agree with all above. As I mentioned recently on another post, one of the best things I did was switch from quantity to quality in my Flickr posts – it has helped me improve enormously.

    Another thing I consider before I publish something (generally to Flickr) – “If this were someone else’s photo, would I click ‘favorite’?” If not, don’t post it.

  • Andre DF

    I have a terrible habit of importing the images the same day and going right into the editing process. Although I’m aware of being too close to one’s work and am my own harshest critic, I think I’m going to put some of this into action and see if my perspective changes. Thanks for the great article!

  • Mike M

    I always think of the cliche “family vacation slides” scene from old TV. This thought process was based on an article I read that basically said unless it’s stellar people don’t look past about image #3 based on actual research of people looking at photos on the web. I went from publishing 50-100 images on my website or facebook to 20 or less for most events. I do motorsports but instead of trying to “get a good one of everyone” I just publish the ones that evoke emotion and if someone wants/needs an image of a particular racer I find it for them after the fact. People know me for signature images rather than as some dude who made some pretty decent pictures and got everyone a picture of themselves. Now I find that I can come much closer to getting a great image of almost everyone without diluting what I’m publishing.

  • Antonio Polo

    Just a few words from my humble experience. I like all the advices. But let me put forward that I´m mostly a film shooter. With film there are no other way that serious self criticism and waiting some time till I see and check my shots. I “only” have 36-38 or 10 (medium format) shots per film roll, then I have to think carefully each photo, not only because of money but because you “can” not be loading film rolls each 30 minutes. Then, I develop the film myself, and that means usually 10-15 days till I see the results. All the “love” of the shooting has dissapeared at that time and I can valorize impartially each shot. I also shoot digital, but I think with digital, usually people shoot too much, and also it´s difficult to arrive home and avoid being seduced to check all the shots.

  • Andrew

    similar way I do things, I rarely if ever, look at photos the same day I’ve taken them. Separation from the “amazing” moments or those shots you might not have been sure about can turn them into “meh” moments and amazing photographs. I feel like our opinion of a photo can change just as much as how our eyes perceive tint from hour to hour.

  • Benicio Murray

    “To enjoy the flowers you must pull the weeds”

  • mokleTkcuF

    Agree. Restraint is a timesaver indeed.
    90% percent of the time I find my first or second shot of a subject is the best. Even if I’ve rolled off a dozen shots of the same thing thereafter. I think it’s because you’re at peak-spontaneity when first pushing the trigger.
    Took me a number of clogged photo libraries and hard-drives to finally learn this.

  • http://instagram.com/julien_grimard Julien

    Thanks for sharing. I’m actually tempted now to try to wait two weeks or more before looking at my digital pictures next time I got out on a shoot.

  • guest

    In my writing class we called it ‘burning the ugly babies’ because it was very possible that a good idea is there, but hadn’t been fleshed out yet – they were still very rough and undeveloped.

    Unfortunately, for me it is time that I think is most useful – returning once or multiple times to do successive edits before the final version. What is best creatively, however (in my opinion) is getting critiques by other minds – that way you get outside opinions to see what worked and what didn’t.